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Against the Current

River pilots in an age of automation

Against the Current

Photo by Zack Smith.

A tugboat on the Mississippi River with the city of New Orleans in the background.

I climbed the gangway of the 613-foot vessel called the Densa Cheetah. It sails under the Malta flag, but at the moment it was docked at a terminal in Myrtle Grove, Louisiana. I surveyed the bow; everywhere I looked was a trip hazard. The cargo hatches had just been filled with tons and tons of a corn-based animal feed meant for export, and the entire deck of the ship was coated in a yellowish fuzz. Delivering grain via a conveyor belt from barge to ship is both a science and a mess.

By contrast, the captain’s bridge was pristine, save for the dirty footprints we’d just trudged inside. I was following Jace Escheté, a Crescent River Port Pilot, as he oversaw the undocking of this vessel and its journey toward Pilottown, Louisiana, fifty-five miles downstream. I was there to learn the work of modern-day river pilots in today’s age of automation.

A century ago this bulk cargo would have been loaded by a steady stream of dockworkers marching lockstep into the belly of the ship to pack the sacks of grain slung over their shoulders tightly in its holds. All that work is mechanized now. I looked down from the bridge and scanned for humans. There weren’t many around. I looked back and forth between Jace and the powerful bank of navigational computers on this ship. Could a river pilot be replaced by technology, too?

I grew up in New Orleans, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the river. I am a sociologist now, and I study the people who form the human links of our great global supply chain. Just like all school children in Louisiana, I was taught that Bienville chose the site for New Orleans in 1718 because of its strategic location: a crescent-shaped sliver of land sitting just above sea level with access to a well-worn portage that connected the river to Lake Pontchartrain. This swampy shortcut enabled the exchange of goods via a vast network of inland waterways. But while goods of some sort will always be loaded and unloaded up and down the riverbank, the number of humans involved during those exchanges has declined steadily for the past seven decades. Consider the fate of longshoremen. A half century ago eight thousand of them worked at the Port of New Orleans. They lived in the surrounding neighborhoods and spent their paychecks on local goods and services. Now giant gantry cranes and shipping containers have made the vast majority of their jobs obsolete. The port expands and expands, yet only a handful of dockworkers remain.

Back at the grain elevator in Myrtle Grove, the wind scoured the ship’s deck. The trees on the riverbank were flocked with corn-colored dust. An apprentice river pilot, Colin Hansen, entered the bridge to practice maneuvering under Jace’s observation. Training began when Jace invited Colin to step outside and look below from the bridge wing.

Escheté directs traffic over walkie-talkie. Photo by Zack Smith.

The puzzle before them was a spiderweb of massive ropes, twelve in total, connecting the ship to bollards on the dock and to a pair of huge, anchored buoys fore and aft. The ship’s two anchors would also need to be heaved, but not yet. Jace and Colin, instructor and student, talked strategy. The mooring crews on the dock and water stared at their walkie-talkies and waited for instructions regarding which lines to untether and in what order.

Because the river doesn’t flow perfectly parallel to this dock, the unmooring process had to be executed in precise order. Otherwise the current could pull the ship into the main channel too fast or slam it into the bank prematurely. That day the bow was facing upriver, the opposite direction of where we needed to go. This posed some challenges, but nothing a river pilot couldn’t handle.

Colin radioed a tug captain to pull the ship slowly away from the dock so that the mooring crew could release the next line. Things were going slow. Jace leaned toward Colin to impart some quiet advice: “You can be more direct, but you also don’t have to be a jerk.” Colin looked down and nodded; he was giving orders to people who’d worked on the river for years. I could see he was trying to find the sweet spot between asking and telling.

After about an hour, the ship was fully unmoored and Colin’s job was done. He climbed down a rope ladder dangling over one side and found his footing on the pilot boat waiting for him below. He was off. One more training session logged in his work tablet, hundreds more to go.

I’ve taught college students for nearly twenty years, and it was pretty clear to me that Jace was a natural teacher. He let Colin find the answers at his own pace. I imagine not all apprentices are so lucky. Later Jace told me about some of the challenges he faced when he first applied to become a river pilot. His perseverance then helped me understand his patience now.

Jace called for the engines to increase power, first “dead slow” and then “slow.” He harnessed the power of the current to help turn the ship downriver. We were underway.

The view from a pilot boat that shuttles people to ships. Photo by Zack Smith.

Apprenticeships are not unique to river pilotage. Academia, law, and medicine also have their own similarly self-governing bodies that dictate the process and standards for entry into their ranks. I’m sympathetic to this model because it is how I earned my degree and, later, tenure. Under this system, once apprentices pass their dissertation, bar exam, or board exam, they become full members of the profession. And, as members, they alone possess the qualifications to promote or sanction other members. Critics say this type of self-governance is an antiquated relic that gives these associations too much power over who does the work and for how much.

In today’s age of automation, shipping lines would love to replace the river pilots with navigational software. And the idea isn’t science fiction. At the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, the race is on to engineer humans out of the equation. Day and night at the Holland sea port, self-driving trucks shuttle shipping containers to their pre-assigned spots. There is no mess or disorganization. There are no requests for a day off, or a raise, or a better shift. Machines do not complain.

As of now Rotterdam is mostly, but not completely, automated. Humans still operate the giant gantry cranes that transfer container boxes from ship to shore and back; however, they do so remotely. No need to pay someone to sit in a crane cab hovering over a ship hundreds of feet in the air when the work can just as easily be done from a comfortable office with video screens, joysticks, and—most importantly—a bathroom. Today, computer programs assist gantry crane operators by instantly calculating container dimensions, height, and distance; tomorrow, the machines will only need people for maintenance and upgrades.

All this is on the horizon for river pilots, too. Auto-navigation technology is already in use in some settings. Support vessels for oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico use dynamic positioning software systems to hold precise geographic locations next to fixed structures within accuracy limits of thirty-six inches. Even in heavy winds and waves, these computerized systems can manipulate dual azimuth thrusters to make micro-adjustments to stay in one place, each propeller rotating up to 360 degrees independently of the other if necessary.

Born and raised in Lafitte, Louisiana, Jace Escheté learned his trade on simpler equipment: his father’s shrimp boat. Eventually someone recommended he try the maritime program at Texas A&M. When his friends were partying on weekends, he ran tugs out of Houston harbor. More time in the wheelhouse meant more options after graduation.

Jace has called into port on almost every continent in the world, including Antarctica. No one ever guesses the one he missed—it’s Australia. From hulking containerships to sleek cruise liners, his Unlimited Master upon Oceans license allows him to take command of any vessel under any weather condition anywhere in the world. But credentials alone aren’t enough to become a member of the Crescent River Port Pilots association. To ensure there is enough work for each member, they limit the total number of pilots in their ranks. When a slot does open up, having a relative among the pilots vouch for you during the application process helps. Jace had no such connections. He lost his first vote to join the association. When he asked a member why, the response was honest: “We don’t know you.” From that point on, Jace set out to build trust with the other pilots, a skill that serves him well today.

Escheté uses river traffic information software to track the movement of other ships. Photo by Zack Smith.

When Jace boards a vessel, his first task is to connect with the captain and crew, people who have been living and eating together in cramped quarters for months. The relationship between pilot and captain is complicated. Captains aren’t built to give up authority. Their job description is to be in control. However, by law, every foreign–flagged vessel entering the Mississippi River must take on a pilot. Mississippi River first-timers sometimes doubt that the incoming pilot can do a better job. But Jace needs to know they will not hesitate to carry out his orders once he assumes control of the ship, or in nautical terms, “has the conn.”

Jace knows that real influence doesn’t come from a piece of paper. Citing maritime law would only show insecurity. So he takes a softer approach. Instead of telling captains and mates everything he knows about the Mississippi, Jace eases his transition into power by giving the crew a chance to showcase their knowledge. For example, Jace will begin by asking the captain how long it would take to get the engines up to speed—“full ahead”—and back down again—“stop engine.” He’ll inquire about the cargo, tonnage, and draft. Much of this information is already contained in a printed report, but asking easy questions gets the dialogue flowing.

Jace used these same skills to work his way into the close-knit river pilot community. The questions were different, but the objective was the same: to convey a bit of deference before easing into a working relationship based on mutual respect.

Pilotage requires trust with tugboat operators, mooring crews, ship captains, and other seasoned river pilots. Interaction after interaction, trust accumulates, like sediment in a river bend. But no shoal is forever, so Jace sees it as his job to tend to the relationships that matter.

To put the pilots’ initial guarded approach to Jace into context, we need to look at what happens when laborers lose autonomy over their work. Longshoremen offer an obvious cautionary tale.

They fought automation and largely lost. As grain elevator and shipping container technology advanced, the loading and unloading of ships could be done faster with fewer people. Cranes and forklifts increased efficiency and safety. Longshoremen today operate under undoubtedly better working conditions, but only a shadow of their original numbers remain.

By contrast, the Mississippi river pilots are a unique success story. Unlike other pilot associations in other ports, the Crescent River Port Pilots have complete control over who can join their ranks, a right they fought for all the way to the US Supreme Court and won to keep. They lobbied the state legislature to put their claim to over 106 miles of river on the lawbooks; it is filed under LA Rev Stat § 34:996 (2022): “The river port pilots shall have the exclusive right to pilot vessels on the Mississippi River between New Orleans, Louisiana and Pilottown.”

Jace Escheté on the bridge with the ship’s crew. Photo by Zack Smith.

Critics of the pilots’ associations claim that this arrangement creates a monopoly. Indeed, it does, and it’s a state-regulated one. The tariffs the pilots can charge are set and published each year by a board of politically appointed members; these fees are paid not by taxpayers but by commercial entities. This arrangement upsets some very powerful pecuniary interests.

For the past half century, multinational corporations have steadily reduced their labor costs in the United States via automation and offshoring. In the aftermath of World War II, good-paying manufacturing jobs that offered a path to middle-class status constituted a third of all employment. Today, after decades of deindustrialization in the United States, those jobs account for less than one in ten. Bucking this trend, river pilots have retained their autonomy—if a potentially temporary one—against pressures from the shipping lines and petrochemical companies who pay the tariffs that comprise their salaries.

Still, the river pilots have left themselves open to criticism of their hiring practices. They too often limit membership to the offspring of their own ranks. Remember, Jace was turned down on his first attempt primarily because had no family connections. And while professional associations have a right to set their own standards, entry should be based on merit, not lineage.

The Crescent River Port Pilots’ association knows this, and they’ve made improvements. Jace eventually won a membership vote based on his skills, and he won’t be the last. The master–apprentice model of the pilots may be as old as the guilds, but that tradition is under threat today by commercial interests looking for any excuse to replace commissioned pilots with less expensive labor today and automated technology tomorrow.

The work of river pilots on the Mississippi, and their constant struggle for autonomy, shines a light on the challenges and opportunities facing our economy today. Automation brought many benefits to modern shipping, but it also came at a cost: fewer workers meant fewer paychecks for local residents. And while it is true that this modernization made smartphones and massive televisions much cheaper, those savings on optional luxuries did little to offset the rising costs of absolute necessities: housing, healthcare, and education. Until we can design an economy where everyone can meet their basic needs, we should be wary of handing over well-paying jobs to machines when humans can still accomplish those tasks just as well—and in some cases even better.

Jace was on his radio with a well-known shrimp boat captain from Lafitte, Mr. Jug (whose nickname and its disputed origins are another story altogether). Jace was headed toward Jug’s 103-foot shrimp boat. They were estimated to cross paths about ten miles above the Head of Passes.

Jace didn’t know it yet, but Jug had had a long day. Earlier that morning, Jug hit a sand bar and damaged the jockey bar that connects to his twin rudders and enables them to move in sync. After some temporary repairs, Jug’s day got worse: his freezer went out (a real problem when you’re carrying ten thousand pounds of shrimp). In less than forty-eight hours, Jug’s catch would spoil. Shrimp boats typically waste no time as they make their way across the river to fishing grounds on either side. However, that day Jug wasn’t simply crossing the river; he was headed upstream to a freezer technician in Venice, Louisiana.

As Jace neared the shrimp boat, he sensed something amiss. I watched his expression slowly indicate slight concern. He needed to talk with Jug. Their previously negotiated strategy to pass each other starboard to starboard was becoming untenable. Jug hadn’t been able to give Jace the room he needed to avoid running aground. Jace grabbed his phone.

Jace has known and respected Jug since childhood. Jug was friends with Jace’s late father. On the phone, the two clearly had a connection, and their conversation flowed freely, which is helpful when a river pilot needs to make a quick and decisive navigation change. Jace’s six-hundred-foot vessel had the full force of the river behind him; there wasn’t room for error.

With plenty of time to spare, the two ships passed one another and headed their separate ways, safe and sound. Jace and Jug were able to transmit and receive the information they needed in seconds. Their back-and-forth was easy and natural, built upon shared memories and mutual respect. Their human connection facilitated their nautical solution.

Despite all the advances in automated navigation, river pilotage still requires more than just maritime knowledge. Over the course of six hours, I watched Jace teach (an apprentice), manage (the tug and mooring crews), psychologize (the ship’s captain), and intuit (Mr. Jug). Some of his work required knowing the river’s secrets, but not all. Emotional intelligence was just as important as hydrological acumen. I’m hard-pressed to see how a computer could do his job. At least, not yet. Automation is on the horizon, of that there is no doubt. But until every boat, kayak, and skiff is plugged into the same navigational software system, we will need humans directing traffic on the river.

As we neared Pilottown, an Associated Branch bar pilot climbed aboard. He would see the ship through the Mississippi’s Southwest Pass. As the river widens, the current slows and drops sediment, creating uneven depths that can ground unsuspecting ships. This lower stretch of river requires its own set of experts.

Once Jace finished his debrief with his replacement pilot and signed off on his electronic paperwork, we were escorted to the deck by the third mate. I shuffled to a gangway that lead to a twenty-foot rope ladder hanging off the side of boat. A pilot boat had come alongside the ship and matched our speed. The ships appeared to be standing still, but the water racing between their hulls offered a glimpse at our actual speed. Jace scrambled down with ease. I tried not to embarrass myself.

Escheté climbing a gangway to board a ship. Photo by Zack Smith.

Over lunch at the Crescent River Port Pilot facility in Pilottown, Jace debriefed the other pilots on his trip downriver. I lost track of their shorthand vocabulary: it sounded like a foreign language to me, an outsider. But I didn’t really need to know what they were saying, only that they understood one another. Safety on the river is not only about knowing how and when to act; it derives from the ability to intuit and anticipate the actions of other pilots and other vessels. Inject human emotion into the equation, and predictability becomes more difficult. That means, until we restrict the river to only automated craft, we will still need pilots to help massive ships, like the Densa Cheetah, sail their way to safer waters. These pilots know the river, yes, but it is equally if not more important that they know the other people on the river.

As we finished our meal, I was relieved to see that human connections still mattered. Navigation on the river is still too unpredictable for an auto-pilot to handle it all. Maybe one day computers will solve this equation, but not today.

Ken Kolb, PhD, was born and raised in New Orleans. He is a James Beard Award finalist and chair of the Sociology Department at Furman University in Greenville, SC.